Playwright: August Wilson. At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 1-773-753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org; $45-$65. Runs through: Oct. 14
Under the astute, compassionate direction of Ron OJ Parsons, some of the best actors in town are offering a nightly master class in ensemble acting. I rarely say "Don't miss," but without hesitation I suggest you make Jitney the next show you see.
Most of the cast are veterans of MPAACT, Congo Square, Pegasus Players, Writers' Theatre, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare and other local companies. Performers such as Allen Gilmore and Alfred Wilson have moved me to laughter (Gilmore in Italian comedy) and tears (Wilson in a profound performance in Master Harold and the Boys), while I've watched younger actors such as Anthony Fleming III and Andre Teamor grow from strength to strength. And A. C. Smith and Cedric Young have been pillars of Chicago theater for several decades now. All that being true, I've never seen them do finer work than in Jitney.
Of course, August Wilson gives character actors a helluva lot to work with, and almost every role in Jitney is a character role. In typical Wilson fashion, Jitney meanders along for several hours, fairly short on plot but filled with the details of multiple personalities. There are a handful of "big" speeches, but mostly the characters reveal themselves through seemingly endless small talk, petty disputes and small kindnesses, all of which add up in grand fashion to a portrait of a community and a circle of relationships, some for better and some for worse. At the heart of Jitney are a bitter father-son relationship and a young couple's awkward efforts to build a life together, told against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Hill District ghetto in 1977, a time when it was being boarded up and torn down. Typical of most Wilson plays, Jitney is shot through with comedy but also with the threat of Black-on-Black violence. However, this time the hair trigger never is pulled and the work ends on a solemn but hopeful note.
Whether playing the humorous moments or the tense ones, this company captures the truth of each character and lives believably in every action of the play. Just consider Wilson as genteel alcoholic Fielding, or Gilmore as busybody Turnbo, or Brian Weddington in slick Superfly mode or handsome Kamal Angelo Bolden as a Vietnam vet who's the newest member of the circle of jitney cab drivers. Caren Blackmore is pitch-perfect as his girlfriend, Rena, bringing charm to the play's only female role. A.C. Smith, as the jitney boss, and Anthony Fleming III, as his estranged son, power the play forward as damaged men with compassion for all, except each other.
Jack Magaw's detailed double-storefront set gives Jitney a perfect home, while Melissa Torchia's costumes provide effective mostly subtle character contrasts.